The fastest fighter jet in history is still in service, but it's not America's F-15s or F-22s, China's J-11, or even Russia's Su-57. Nope, the fastest fighter jet in the world is an old Soviet design that can rocket up to the edge of space and then scream around the planet like a banshee.
Fastest jet in the world? That's easy. Most people know it's the SR-71, the reconnaissance plane so fast it could outrun missiles. But the fastest fighter jet? Well, the Soviets created a fighter jet to chase down the SR-71 Blackbird, and it was so fast that it's still the fastest fighter jet ever built. And it's still in service today.
The MiG-25 Foxbat looks ungainly and boxy next to fourth and fifth-generation fighters. Its younger sibling, the MiG-29, is much sleeker, and the aggressive-looking F-35, F-22, and even the Su-57 make for way better wall posters than the Foxbat.
By comparison, the Foxbat looks almost like a box truck. If you're feeling generous, you could compare it to something like an old Chrysler LeBaron, instead.
But only if that Chrysler Lebaron could sweep down a drag strip at speeds over 60 percent faster than its rivals.
A two-seat trainer version of the MiG-25 flies over forested land.
(Leonid Faerberg (transport-photo.com), GFDL 1.2)
The story of the Foxbat is a fairly simple one. When Russia first understood the SR-71, it realized that the step from a reconnaissance plane that could fly three times the speed of sound to a bomber that could do so was large but hardly insurmountable. They had to plan on U.S. bombers that could outrun ground-launched missiles.
And so they got to work on a fighter that could move on the edge of space with the SR-71 and the planned XB-70 Valkyrie. While they knew it was unlikely they could create a fighter that could fly faster than a reconnaissance plane, there was a decent chance that it could outfly the bomber since the bomber would have to carry more weight.
Lacking the materials science to create light airframes like the SR-71, it did the next best thing and just made the engines so powerful that they could muscle through, carrying the nickel-steel alloy frame to record heights and speed. And the engineers at the Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau (MiG is a shortening of that name), were some of the world's best engine designers.
They came up with a twin-turbojet design that could propel the MiG-25 to Mach 2.8 in operational conditions and 3.2 if the pilots were willing to risk the engines. The plane quickly set world records for speed, time to climb, and top altitudes for a fighter.
And that scared the U.S. and the rest of NATO. Not only was the Foxbat ridiculously fast and powerful, but its design suggested that it was super maneuverable, a design characteristic that the West was moving toward.
But two events would completely change the calculus for the Foxbat. One made it a plane without a mission, and the other took away much of the fear for pilots who might be called to face it.
First, a catastrophic crash killed two pilots and destroyed the $500-million XB-70 Valkyrie test aircraft in a program that was already suffering cost problems. The program was canceled. Suddenly, there was little prospect of a Mach 3 bomber for the Foxbat to chase, meaning the most critical mission for Soviet planners was preventing American air superiority.
And then, a Soviet pilot defected to Japan with his MiG-25 in 1976, and NATO learned that the Foxbat was actually sort of horrible at air superiority.
When they disassembled, studied, re-assembled, and tested the plane, American engineers realized that it would almost always have a speed and altitude advantage against NATO planes, but it couldn't capitalize on it. The Foxbat didn't have a look-down, shoot-down radar system.
Without getting too into the technical weeds, the science of getting a radar that can see ahead of a fighter and beneath it without getting confused by ground clutter is actually sort of tough, and the Soviets hadn't nailed it yet. So Foxbat pilots would be forced to descend to engage other fighters.
And once it was on a relatively even altitude with its adversaries, it would be relatively easy pickings. While it was undeniably fast, it was not actually super maneuverable. It was unlikely that a Foxbat could dodge missiles or win a dogfight. With a few changes to doctrine, planes like the F-4 Phantom could keep the Foxbat on the run or down it entirely.
Still, the Foxbat has continued in service in Post-Soviet Russia, and it's still the fastest and highest-flying fighter jet in the world, carrying its full combat load so high that the pilot's tears will boil off their faces. It just doesn't matter because there's nothing up there for the Foxbat to fight.
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